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The deadly attack on Bardo Museum on 18 March 2015 focused international attention on growing insecurity in Tunisia. The country has been struggling with terrorism since the 1980s. The problem gained prominence during the global War on Terror, which was launched by President George Bush in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, and even more so since the revolution that sparked the Arab Spring in December 2010. Although the threat was never as high as in other countries, such as Algeria in the 1990s or Egypt since 2013, it exists.
Islamic extremists targeted tourist facilities in the late 1980s. Several attacks were also carried out in the period between 1987 and 2011, during the era of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The long-serving ruler became an internationally regarded champion in the fight against terrorism (and Islamism in general), using it as an excuse to crush civil liberties and create a corrupt police state.
Three major events took place in this period. In 1995, an Algerian commando (GIA) shot dead six soldiers in Tamerza, a southern border camp. In 2002, an al-Qaeda operative blew himself up in the El Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, killing 16 European tourists and three Tunisians. In 2007, a raid on a group of young Salafists training and preparing for armed attacks in the Soliman suburb of Tunis left 12 militants and two policemen dead. The number of Tunisian fighters in Iraq has also increased by the hundreds year on year since 2001.
These issues were largely neglected in the media during the Ben Ali years. Mainstream Tunisian newspapers and radios did not address them, as the general directive during the dictatorship was always to portray the country in a positive light. The international community, for its part, turned a blind eye to what happened inside Tunisia, as long as Ben Ali remained a loyal soldier in the global War on Terror. Likewise, international media had little interest in covering Tunisia, except as a cheap holiday destination.
After Ben Ali was ousted in January 2011, change occurred in two ways. At the institutional level, the weakening police state and the country’s new-found freedom paved the way for extremists to evolve and expand. Many took up martial arts or bodybuilding, dressed in military fatigues and talked openly about jihad in public spaces and conferences. Some of them travelled to combat zones such as Syria and Libya, crossing borders that were hard to control.
At the media level, Tunisia came under the spotlight. As the birthplace of the Arab Spring, it attracted increasing attention from the international media. With censorship lifted, local journalists were able to cover any event they wanted, and terrorism was an easy topic to sell. Security issues were also inflated by influential Ancien Regime-affiliated media, who linked them to democracy. The latter is hence described as bringing chaos and instability, opening the door for terrorists and anarchists.
The first post-dictatorship attack that can be labelled Islamist terrorism took place in May 2011, in the city of Rouhia. A colonel and a soldier were killed, as well as two militants. It was the beginning of a campaign targeting security and military forces. Around 60 policemen and soldiers have since been killed, many of them victims of landmines in the Chaambi Mountains, on the border with Algeria. In July 2013, eight soldiers were ambushed and beheaded in the area. In July 2014, almost in the same place, 14 soldiers were killed and 30 injured.
Until the Bardo Museum attack in the capital Tunis on 18 March, most of the attacks targeted the police and the military in the north-west of the country, on the Algerian border. Attempts to target civilian or tourist areas either failed or were foiled. The attack on Tunisia’s leading museum, which left more than 20 tourists dead, remains an exception. Compared to Libya or even Egypt, Tunisia is relatively safe. The media coverage that included headlines such as “The end of the Arab Spring” or “The failure of Democracy” exaggerates the situation thus far.
These attacks were attributed by the Ministry of Interior, as well as security experts, to four organizations: al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade and, recently, Islamic State (IS). AQIM, the mother organization, pre-dates 2011. AQIM-affiliated militants founded AST after the overthrow of Ben Ali, and a military wing emerged: the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. By 2014, leaders from the latter group were undecided about whether to join AQIM or IS. These fighters are usually initiated in Libya.
With the worsening conflict in Libya, future threats, most notably arms smuggling, should not be minimized. The armed men who stormed the Bardo Museum were returnees from Libya, and many more threats have emerged from social media accounts broadcasting from there. Shabab al-Tawhid, an extremist group based in Libya’s east, is largely composed of young Tunisian Salafists who broke away from AST, as they had more radical views regarding the use of terroristic attacks. Weapons are being smuggled from Libya to Algeria through Tunisia, but some are stored – and perhaps used – in Tunisia. Tunisian extremists use Libya as a safe haven and training ground, and many returnees from Syria are thought to be in Libya.
What affects Tunisians more than terrorism, however, is everyday insecurity. As the state weakens, thugs and thieves are growing in confidence. Burglary and racketeering are rife. Police forces – partly overwhelmed by work, and partly profiting themselves from the general demise in the country’s public sector – are not performing well. Police corruption is another headache: it has become more widespread since the revolution, but few politicians have the courage to address it. Neither do Tunisian media devote much attention to these issues, preferring instead to cover the hot-selling topic of terrorism.
In his inaugural speech on 4 February 2015, Prime Minister Habib Essid announced that security was his top priority. His security agenda has yet to be drafted, but the Bardo Museum attack consolidated the position of security apologists, mainly affiliated to the Ancien Regime. Civil society needs to ensure that this is not a police state redux, and to continue defending the liberties it has gained since 2011.